The Mind of a Graphic Designer & Illustrator
116 & West
Our Associate Creative Director Adam Rosenlund is pretty awesome. He came to 116 & West with some pretty cool experiences, including stints with Dreamworks and Marvel Comics.
I had a few queries about design, so I took the opportunity to pepper Adam with questions and record his answers. Our conversation ranged fairly widely, and I didn’t want to cut anything, so you get the whole enchilada.
Is there a difference between taking on another designer’s style and taking on a new client’s style?
Adam: Not necessarily. In a lot of ways, you design within a sandbox. You’re not creating a typography wholesale. You’re not designing every single letter form every single time. As a graphic designer for a client, you pick the right font, imagery, and colors from a “toolkit,” of sorts, and run with it.
I’m also an illustrator, and that works a little differently. When you’re illustrating, you can’t necessarily copy exactly what someone does with their brushstroke or the way that they put pen on paper to create a line. There are things other designers can illustrate that I can replicate, but I can’t copy exactly. So, there’s a gulf that’s probably always going to be perceptible.
So, for some projects, it’s easier to redraw whatever the previous designer has done because it would take a lot more effort to try and copy a style exactly. I do my best to create something in my style, but that has a similar tone and style to the previous designer’s. And, without standing over that previous designer’s shoulder, it’s really impossible for me to know how he or she did the work.
Does it bother you when you get asked to recreate someone else’s illustration style?
Adam: I think it depends on the context. If I’m doing it for a client and it’s part of their style guide, then it doesn’t really bother me. But, as a freelance illustrator, if someone came to me asking to copy someone else, I’d say “no.”
In this job, I’m working on behalf of 116 & West for our clients. So, I have that separation. I don’t have that ego. I’m not attached to the style necessarily. But if the work has just my name on it, then I do.
As an agency, our job is to create the work, but also be invisible. Our names aren’t on anything we produce, it’s the client’s. The idea for an illustration, on the other hand, is to be distinct.
Did it take time to learn how to be both creative and invisible without an ego?
Adam: Not particularly. I think my big division is design versus illustration. I would rarely do illustration in-house for whoever I was working for and I would rarely do design freelance.
An illustration is much simpler because you tend to be one part of the campaign. So, at the very least, billing is simpler. Here’s the drawing, it costs you this much. Pay me in 30 days. Whereas when you’re doing design, you spent time doing strategy and all kinds of other things. Design and marketing become so complicated. Usually, a client will like one part and not the other. So, having to separate aspects is complex. Most of the time, I rarely offer up my illustration skills at a corporate job.
If I come to the table in a corporate job as an illustrator, they’ll just ask me for illustrations over and over and it would make me hate illustrating. So, it took a special place like 116 & West for me to be okay opening up that part of my skillset.
Have you illustrated in any of your other non-freelance jobs?
Adam: I have, yeah. I worked at Boise Weekly for a while. And, I did a number of illustrations, but I had relatively free rein. They’d give me the editorial for the week and I’d just get to illustrate it. I didn’t get a whole lot of feedback.
When I became creative director at Bodybuilding.com, it was different. I did a few projects that needed illustration, but a lot of it was photo illustrating, where I would take a photo and heighten it in some way or another.
For special little events, I’d illustrate, but I was more protective of it because there was so much work to do. If every single asset had to be illustrated, I would have pulled my hair out.
Bodybuilding.com also has an editorial department that sometimes needed an illustration, but I had carte blanche to say “no.” Because A, it wasn’t in my job description, and B, it was a totally different department.
Is there anything else you think that’s interesting about design versus illustration?
Adam: Unless you’re working in-house for a large company, you basically live your life at the agency level, hopscotching through different brands—some you develop, some you don’t.
So, I think you do have to be comfortable with doing work one week and then resetting your headspace the next week. Every client and every brand comes with a mood, a state of being, a state of mind, and you have to inhabit that somewhat as a designer. You have to live it or else your design is going to feel false. And, a lot of times, that’s what happens.
Our clients aren’t us, so you have to be mentally flexible enough to be empathetic to whatever they need or whatever their customers need. I feel like a good designer is really good at doing that. Without being the key demographic, they understand how to communicate with it properly and create. Good designers are also good at jumping between brands and not losing a step.
So if you’re not part of the key demo, but you have to design for it, what are some things you do to inform yourself?
Adam: That’s when you start pulling inspo, and honestly sometimes the best thing to do is just ask the client. It’s important to get a grasp on who we are talking to. In my own history, if I know someone in that target, I’ll ask them some questions.
I’ve worked on brands that are totally not for me. For example, women’s brands. It’s not like I can’t empathize with women, but these brands were speaking to a very specific woman. Like, rich women between the ages of 35-55 that are in high-powered jobs. It’s a very specific niche that is not me.
I can make all the assumptions in the world about that niche, but if I don’t talk to somebody, have them break down the honest truth, and learn what is truly appealing or unappealing to them, I’ll never design well.
Sometimes, a conversation does shatter your expectations. You can make the assumption to go in one direction, but maybe someone will say, “That’s pandering and if I ever saw that I would be like, ‘that’s fake.’”
If you don’t have any honesty in your design, you’ll be like that gif with the old guys with the skateboard saying “greetings fellow teens.”
If you design just to the surface level of your demographic, people will see right through it. People are becoming savvier and savvier when it comes to advertising and trying to spot things that are phony or feel phony. You never want to be on that side of that equation.